The Maryland House of Delegates today was to begin considering of bills that would either raise $74 million in new taxes or leave in place steep cuts in local government aid in the proposed fiscal 1992 budget.
Last night, the House gave preliminary approval to the $11.5 billion budget plan. Final votes on the budget and tax bills are set for tomorrow.
The tax measures under consideration would expand the state's 5 percent sales tax to cigarettes and other tobacco products and would reduce capital gains tax breaks. Each of the measures is expected to raise $37 million.
Among the budget cuts that received preliminary approval by the House was a $74 million contingency reduction in state aid to local governments, which would be restored if delegates approve the two tax bills.
Del. Charles J. Ryan, D-Prince George's, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, described the governor's budget, which the panel reduced by nearly $200 million through cuts and fund transfers, as "bare bones."
"There was very little fat in the governor's budget," Ryan said as he walked the House through the 205-page budget bill and the nearly 300 changes proposed by the committee.
With tax revenues plunging because of the recession, lawmakers had to repeatedly trim the spending plan to match reductions in anticipated revenues. The proposal is about 1 percent higher than fiscal 1991's budget, which was also cut last night through a reconciliation bill. Fiscal 1992 begins July 1.
Last night, the newly assertive but still small Republican delegation tried to leave its mark on the budget with eight amendments that failed overwhelmingly.
GOP membership in the House increased by 50 percent last fall because of the anti-incumbent mood among voters but it holds only 25 of the 141 seats. Still, the party has been working to establish itself as a credible opposition.
Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Balto. Co., led the charge with an amendment that would force agency heads to trim 2 percent from staff budgets. She said the measure would save $23 million without affecting programs and would alleviate the need for tax increases.
After brief debate, the measure failed 114-15. Other amendments that were offered included ones that would cut 72 positions from the comptroller's staff, eliminate vacant positions in the Juvenile Services Administration and pare the state's sports promotion budget.
One after the other, the GOP amendments were defeated in lopsided voting that failed to attract solid backing even from Republicans.
The GOP has traditionally tried to amend the budget bill, but rarely in such a concerted fashion, observers said. House rules offer limited opportunities for the minority party, and the delegation was clearly trying to assert itself on the tax-and-spend issues that have been successful for the GOP nationally.
"I think we were trying to make a statement," Sauerbrey said afterward. "Your choice is to try or just rubber-stamp a budget."
Democrats were not impressed.
"I think we saw a fractured Republican Party," said Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, of Western Maryland.
Del. Thomas H. Hattery, D-Frederick, accused the Republicans of grandstanding and said the amendments should have been pushed in committee.
"They want to get credit for cutting the budget without the discredit for cutting programs," Hattery said.
But Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore, congratulated the House at the end of the session and said, "Regardless of which side we were on, we were trying to give the people of the state a better product."
If the House approves the tax measures and budget, as expected, the spending plan will be sent to the Senate, where more changes are expected. The differences between the two budget bills will be worked out in a conference committee.
One amendment that was passed last night made technical changes to the state's APEX program of special aid to local schools. The budget allows a one-time exemption to local schools that fail to meet the minimum spending guidelines required for APEX grants.
The amendment, sponsored by Del. Henry B. Heller, D-Montgomery, adjusts the base year for applying the APEX formula in the future. This will keep school districts from being penalized in coming years for this year's spending problems.